‘At the Movies’ Axed: Disney’s Murder-Suicide

Disney has announced that it will cancel “At the Movies,” having done pretty much everything it could to devalue the franchise that Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel built into a weekly syndication staple.

Foolishly pursuing younger demos after Ebert became incapacitated and the show had to get by with guest hosts to flank the always-so-so Richard Roeper, the studio gambled with its “Ben & Ben” experiment, recruiting the 20-something Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz to take over. Lyons almost instantly alienated the show’s base audience with his shallow, dunder-headed criticism, and not surprisingly, the younger crowd the program coveted never materialized.

By the time two established critics, the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, replaced them, it was too late. The damage had been done. (Disclosure: I worked with Phillips years ago at the Los Angeles Times but we haven’t kept in touch.)

“At the Movies” might have petered out regardless, but there’s no denying the studio’s role in hastening its demise. It’s a near-textbook example of not recognizing what made a program work — and disrespecting an audience base simply because too many of them fall above the 50-year-old threshold.

Criticism is already under siege in print, with many papers (including this one) having decided that employing full-time critics is a luxury they can no longer afford. (Variety does still have several regular critics on staff, including yours truly, Justin Chang and Peter Debruge, but we all have other responsibilities as well.)

The real tragedy is that there’s still room for thoughtful movie analysis in the TV marketplace — helping sort through all the celebrity babble out there — but Disney and perhaps other studios will likely derive the wrong lessons from “At the Movies.” Sure, the show might have eventually died on its own, but Disney’s syndication arm sped up the process by holding a popcorn bag over its head.

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